Where the Mountains meet the Southern Sky
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s top outdoor and heritage destinations. Established in 1934 along the border dividing North Carolina and Tennessee, the park preserves the natural and cultural history of the southern Appalachian mountains. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983.
These mountains were the homeland of the Cherokee people, who had lived here for centuries before the arrival of the first Spanish, English and French explorers. The called the mountains shaconage, which translates roughly to “blue, like smoke.” It is easy to see how the name came about by looking across the ridges and peaks on a clear day. Distant mountains appear blue to the eye and – in the words of the Cherokee – much “like smoke.”
The Cherokee believed that the mountains were created at the the beginning of time by a great buzzard. The land was formed of dry mud thrown out into the water of the oceans. The great buzzard then swooped down across it. Each time its wings touched ground, a valley was created. Each time its wings went up, the mud was pulled up to form the mountain ridges and peaks.
The Cherokee people loved these mountains and fought to preserve their homeland homeland from encroachment in wars against the Spanish, English and finally the United States. Hernando de Soto invaded the mountains in 1540 beginning a series of efforts by Europeans to lay claim to this land. When Great Britain finally gained control of Kentucky to expand settlements west of the Blue Ridge, the Cherokee warned that the region was a “dark and bloody ground.”
In the end it was an Act of Congress and not a war that forced most of the Native Americans from their homes in the mountains. The Indian Removal Act was passed on May 28, 1830, and signed into law by Andrew Jackson. The law authorized Jackson – who was then President of the United States – to begin negotiations with the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw and other Native American nations still living east of the Mississippi for their “removal” to new lands in the west.
Some of the Cherokee – among them the famed scholar Sequoyah – had already moved west to what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma, but many thousands more had no desire to go. The Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole went to war against the United States to try to preserve their homelands. The Cherokee fought their battle through peaceful meetings with Jackson and written appeals to the U.S. Congress.
Pressure for their removal increased as gold mining operations expanded in the North Georgia mountains and finally a group of chiefs representing only a portion of the Cherokee Nation signed the Treaty of New Echota in December 1835. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty by just one vote in May 1836. Despite the statements of Principal Chief John Ross and the Cherokee Council that the treaty was a fraud, it became law and the United States laid claim to all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River.
The Cherokee people were given two years to peacefully leave for the lands allotted them in the west, but only around 2,000 did so. The rest remained in their homes in the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. When the deadline came in 1838, President Martin Van Buren sent Maj. Gen. Winfield T. Scott with 7,000 soldiers to force the Cherokee from their homes.
Soldiers came with muskets and bayonets to force men, women and children from their homes. Thousands of people were herded into concentration camps. Over 12,000 Cherokees were sent west on the Trail of Tears. As many as 6,000 of them died of disease and exposure in one of the most heartbreaking episodes in American history. Around 4,000 Cherokee people remained in the mountains. Some did so by hiding in the deepest parts of today’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Others fled to private land where they were allowed to remain. These survivors were the ancestors of today’s Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
Even before the military forced three-fourths of the Cherokee people from their mountain homes, white and black settlers came into the ridges and valleys to carve out lives for themselves. Some settled in Cades Cove, where the Cherokee agreed to give land in 1819. Over 700 people lived in this valley by 1850 and it is preserved today so visitors can see the homes, farms and other places of importance to these early settlers.
The region of the Great Smoky Mountains was not plantation country before the Civil War and slavery was virtually nonexistent there. It may come as a surprise, then, that bitter animosity grew in this land of ridges and hollows. Some of the settlers were pro-Union, but many others – including large numbers of Cherokee – supported the Confederacy. Col. William Thomas was given a commission in the Confederate Army to organize a legion of both white and Cherokee soldiers from the mountains.
Thomas’ Legion fought numerous battles and skirmishes in the region, twice marching in force over the mountains. Battles were fought at today’s Gatlinburg, Bryson City and near Waynesville. The last of these took place at White Sulpher Springs near Waynesville on May 6, 1865, long after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston at Bennett Place in North Carolina.
The people of the Great Smoky Mountains resumed their normal lives after the Civil War, depending on their labor and ingenuity for what they needed to survive. They continued to live as they had since the early 1800s until the timber companies penetrated the mountains in around 1900.
The beautiful ridges, valleys and hollows were covered with magnificent forests of old growth timber. These beautiful woodlands were seen as a commercial commodity by the timber companies. Lumber towns sprang up in the mountains as men, oxen and the locomotives of small tram railroads labored to harvest the timber, saw it into lumber and ship it to market. By the 1930s, only about 20% of the original forest remained.
It fell to the Federal government to save what was left, even though that meant evicting settlers, miners and loggers from their homes. Congress approved the establishment of a national park in 1926, but provided no funds for land acquisition. John D. Rockefeller then donated $5,000,000 to begin the project and Congress finally pitched in another $2,000,000. The park was officially established in 1934 and was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 522,419 acres today and is one of the largest protected areas of public land in the eastern United States. In addition to the mountains and forests, the park preserves the largest collection of log buildings in the eastern United States. More than 70 historic structures stand in the park today, including log cabins, barns, churches, mills, houses and more.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park today is one of America’s most popular national park areas. Visitors come throughout the year to enjoy viewing wildlife and spectacular scenery. The park is popular for auto touring, bicycling, hiking, picnicking, camping, fishing, waterfall exploring and more. The Appalachian Trail passes through the park.
An observation tower atop Clingman’s Dome allows visitors to view the mountains from the highest point in the park. Once called “Old Smoky,” the mountain rises 6,643 feet above sea level. It is the highest point in Tennessee and is the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig in North Carolina are higher.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, although some areas and roads close in the winter. Visitor Centers can be found at Oconaluftee, Clingman’s Dome, Cades Cove and Sugarland. Information centers are located outside the park in the cities of Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Townsend.
See gorgeous highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in this free video: